Vendor coalition promotes IP as fax venue

Enterprise IT managers who have made the transition from analogue telephones to voice-over-Internet Protocol should extend their investment to include fax transmissions, a coalition of vendors said Wednesday.

The International Voice-over-IP

Council said it has formed a working group that will be dedicated to promoting and improving fax-over-IP (FoIP). Voice-over-IP, or VoIP, refers to the conversion of voice signals into streams of digital packets and sending them over an IP-constructed network environment. Although many corporations have already deployed VoIP products, the VoIP Council, which counts Bell and Telus as members, was formed in March to evangelize the business benefits behind the technology, like cost savings and reliability.

Ralph Musgrove, chairman of the VoIP Council’s FoIP Committee, said the ability to put fax on IP has existed since the mid-1990s, but the need to migrate voice traffic got most of the early adopters’ attention.

“”VoIP has always been the sexier and more exciting type of market,”” he said. “”It’s kind of the ‘F-word’ — you don’t want to talk about it too much.””

While e-mail has replaced much business-to-business communication, Musgrove said fax is very much alive in the enterprise, where it remains the preferred transmission method of high-value documents like non-disclosure agreements, purchase orders and invoices. In many cases, Musgrove noted, it is easier to find a company’s fax number in the Yellow Pages than an e-mail address.

The benefits from FoIP are virtually identical to voice-over-IP, Musgrove said. Companies can save on long distance and reduce their total cost of ownership because they don’t need special routers, servers or other hardware. Musgrove mentioned one customer which used to dedicate six full-time people to managing 26 fax servers that managed only 81 per cent uptime. Through VoIP, he said, they have reduced that to one-half a single person’s job and produced uptime of more than 99 per cent.

Norm Baxter, a project manager who recently set up a landmark VoIP deployment at the City of Mississauga, said the majority of the city’s faxes are running through a Cisco VG248. The faxes remain analogue but connect through the Cisco device and enter the IP system. Though the project shows promise, the technology has not been without a few problems, he admitted.

“”It’s difficult to make a blanket statement that says, ‘all faxes work,’ because there is such a variety and a vintage,”” he said, adding the lifecycle management program at Mississauga keeps many older devices in use for a long time.

“”A fax machine from five or 10 years ago that we had at city hall might be pushed out to a community centre where they only do five faxes a day . . . there tends to be a cascading effect.””

Musgrove acknowledged the interoperability problems and said it would be one of the FoIP Committee’s focus areas. The group also wants to make the use of the technology more seamless.

“”Today, sending (fax) from one service provider to another, you would go over IP, through phone network and over IP. That’s kind of silly if you think about it,”” he said.

Microsoft will be including features that could boost the use of FoIP when it introduces its Office 2003 suite later this year, Musgrove added.

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